For the first time in years, Virginia Tech has an offense with enough explosiveness to win in a shootout, and Syracuse's high-flying offense just might require Justin Fuente's scheme to keep up in that sort of game.
The Hokies are surely hoping that Bud Foster's defense can put the clamps on the Orange's 12th ranked passing attack, and the unit certainly proved its mettle by walloping UNC's vaunted offense last week. But if Tech should struggle to slow down efficient QB Eric Dungey and the nation's leading receiver in Amba Etta-Tawo, can the offense score enough to match Dino Babers' rapid pace?
Syracuse's defense likely won't offer much in the way of resistance — the Orange are allowing just over 475 yards per game, including 273.5 yards per game through the air — but the Hokies are at least wary of DC Brian Ward's propensity to bring pressure.
"They have a good scheme, do a great job mixing up their calls," Fuente said on a call with reporters Wednesday. "Their movement up front causes a lot of people problems. We'll certainly have our hands full handling all of those things that they can throw at you."
Indeed, Fuente cautioned that "they like to move up front" and "will bring pressure from the perimeter," and is passing that message along to his offense. RB Travon McMillian said Tuesday that he'll be ready to be called on early and often in pass blocking, expecting that "I'm gonna have to be really good in pass protection and striking with my hands and moving my feet."
Yet so far, the Hokies have been quite effective at keeping Jerod Evans upright (they've allowed just seven sacks this season, tied for the 26th best rate nationally) and Syracuse hasn't been wildly successful at disrupting opposing passers.
The Orange have 10 sacks this season (tied for 83rd overall), and their front seven does seem to be at least adequate when it comes to generating impactful plays — the Orange rank 82nd nationally in Football Outsiders' front seven "havoc rate," which accounts for the unit's total tackles for loss, passes defensed and forced fumbles divided by its total plays.
But Babers recognizes that the Hokies have enough talent on the outside that he won't be able to fully commit to coming after Evans, and will have to drop plenty of players back in coverage as well.
"We're probably going to do a little bit of both, and I think that you have to have the ability to do both just in case one is better than the other or just in case one is not very good, and you need to lean more heavily on the other one," Babers said on the call with reporters. "We're going to probably for the most part be balanced in that situation."
Further complicating matters will be the temporary absence of starting DE Kendall Coleman for the first half. Babers announced Wednesday that redshirt senior De'Jon Wilson will temporarily take Coleman's place, thanks to the true freshman's targeting penalty against Wake Forest last week.
Even still, Fuente believes the defensive line could pose problems for the Hokies.
"They do have some younger guys out there playing, but they're certainly playing with great effort," Fuente said. "Their technique has gotten better since the season started. I think it's apparent. They're obviously being well-coached in their schemes and their techniques. Those kids have very bright futures, in my opinion."
On the other hand, Babers is less confident in his secondary. The Orange have allowed opposing QBs to complete 56.1 percent of their passes so far (tied for 40th nationally), but they're tied for 112th with their 8.4 yards allowed per pass. The defensive backs are a problem area in particular, ranking 127th in the whole FBS in DB havoc rate.
"We've been decimated back there," Babers said. "We've got people rolling in and out of the lineup back there, and it's hard to be extremely consistent, outside of (CB) Corey Winfield, I'm not sure we've been consistent at any of the other three spots back there."
Babers was equally worried about his young offensive line, particularly on the interior. For Foster to effectively limit Dungey and the rest of the offense, it would seem that he'll have to attack that weak spot.
"When you start putting talented young players on the football field, they're still young, and you get them against some experienced guys that are older and more mature, and there's going to be physical breakdowns," Babers said. "Then you start getting into the scheme of things where the other coaches can be extremely creative with some of the things that they're doing as far as pressures and things like that, and with not having a lot of experience on the offensive side, especially in the interior offensive line, it can be very difficult for them to handle mentally some of the things that are going on."
Syracuse has allowed 16 sacks so far (ranking 106th overall in that category), including five against Wake Forest alone last week. Tech has 11 sacks on the season (tied for 69th nationally), but with an overall havoc rating that ranks third in the country, there's clear room for Foster's bunch to take advantage of that disparity.
"It's fun to watch them play, but it's not fun to know that you've got to play them," Babers said. "It's a combination of all those things; outstanding personnel, fantastic scheme with a cool operator calling it."